When Russia Today anchor Abby Martin ended a broadcast of her media analysis show “Breaking the Set” by looking sternly toward the camera and condemning Russian intervention in Crimea, many expressed amazement that this shiny-haired insurgent was bucking the Kremlin party line. Huffpo UK described the tirade as “spectacularly off-message.” Glenn Greenwald, to no one’s surprise, praised Martin’s bravery. And Martin’s speech did indeed sound quite remarkable, especially amid the blinkered unreality of RT’s overall coverage of Ukraine (which Newsweek has called a “Cold War theme park, without the breadlines.”) As her segment came to a close, Martin gravely said: “Just because I work here, for RT, doesn't mean I don't have editorial independence and I can’t stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs. What Russia did is wrong.”
The outburst was not exactly surprising. Martin has always been something of a rabble-rouser and a speaker of truth-to-power, though historically her specialty has been tearing down American political and cultural institutions. She grew up on the west coast and created a 9/11 truther group in San Diego. RT first found her through Occupy Oakland, when she was covering the crackdowns there as a citizen journalist. She worked for a bit as an Occupy correspondent, and then got called to DC to interview for an anchor job. (As she has described her initial reaction to the job interview: “There’s no fucking way in hell I’m moving to DC…lobbyist douchebag central.”) She has a stated affinity for psychedelic drugs. Things she has said on air since joining RT include “Fuck the media, fuck the candidates, fuck the corporatocracy,” and ads for her show feature her smashing a TV set with a sledgehammer. And it's also unsurprising, of course, to think that RT would have relished Martin’s Crimea comments as a neat little opportunity to point out its own openness to dissent.
But the most telling part of Martin’s rant on Russia Today was its aftermath, during which RT’s image management seemed to go off the rails. The Telegraph reported that RT executives told the UK’s Channel 4 that Martin had been “misled by American media.” Meanwhile RT released a statement yesterday praising itself vis a vis Martin's behavior: “Contrary to the popular opinion, RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions, not just in private but on the air.” The statement then added: “In her comment Ms. Martin also noted that she does not possess a deep knowledge of reality of the situation in Crimea. As such we'll be sending her to Crimea to give her an opportunity to make up her own mind from the epicenter of the story.” But alas Martin hadn't heard about her employer’s generous offer until the media reported it, and promptly replied on her Twitter feed that she would not in fact be going to Crimea. This whole murkiness of message helps explain why RT’s public perception as a Kremlin-managed monolith is off-base: much of RT's programming is less a well-oiled Russian propaganda machine than a defensive, shapeshifting retort to the Western media—less focused on a coherent foreign policy agenda than on asserting itself as an alternative to American cable news, its ideological chorus so miscellaneous that it somehow includes both Abby Martin and Larry King.